News & Opinion

Tuesdays with Jack never get old

Jack Nichlaus
Memorial host Jack Nicklaus greets Bryson DeChambeau after his victory in 2018.

DUBLIN, Ohio – Tornado sirens blared after midnight Monday as strong storms raked across southern and central Ohio. You know what that means. It must be Memorial Tournament week.

The locals joke about the unpredictable spring weather here, the way we all love to whine about the weather no matter where we live (OK, maybe not Palm Springs), but seriously: no tournament ever has been so consistently unlucky with rain.

The Memorial Tournament is like the late Rodney Dangerfield’s line about visiting casinos in Las Vegas: “I don’t even know why I play blackjack. My lucky number is 22.”

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Jack Nicklaus serves up an annual treat for the media ahead of his Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.

Two pages in the tournament media guide are devoted to the event’s history of weather delays. Forty-two of 170 rounds have been delayed in 28 of the Memorial’s 43 tournaments. Not even Rod Carew hit for an average that high. (If you’re under 40, Google him.)

If I were a PGA Tour player, I seriously would consider skipping this event because of its meteorological history. It has turned into the Mud-morial Tournament on multiple occasions. As a golf writer, I always find it tempting to scratch this one unless I have new rain gear to test.

Yet I’m pretty sure that I haven’t missed a Memorial in 30 years. I were a PGA Tour player, I  never would skip it, even if I couldn’t play the challenging Muirfield Village course worth a darn.

The reason is Jack Nicklaus, national treasure. The void in golf that we’ve all felt since the death of Arnold Palmer in 2016 is a reminder that the clock is ticking. Standard journalistic writing style is to refer to a subject by his last name, but Jack is too familiar. We’ve always been on a first-name basis with him. He’s just Jack, even though he’s not “just” Jack. He’s a legend.

Many Tour players compete in this event primarily for the chance to hang out with Jack. William McGirt had a journeyman’s career until he won the Memorial in 2016.

“I’m washing my hands in the locker-room bathroom. Jack is at the sink beside me, and he doesn’t know my name,” McGirt said two years ago when I wrote a story about him for The Memorial, the tournament magazine. “He says, ‘How’d it go out there?’ We just chit-chatted. It was funny that he didn’t know my name on Thursday, and Sunday, he handed me the trophy.”

Jack is a habit that the media can’t kick. He seemingly has been the smartest man in the room for years, not because he thinks he is but because we think he is after listening to him. Jack is the ultimate go-to guy for the media, for other players and even for the august bodies that govern the game. If the Masters Tournament is considering a course change, guess who probably gets a call?

Anyway, it has become a Memorial tradition on Tuesday afternoon that Jack talks with the media. These are golden moments. I recall my first few Masters, when the press building was a glorified airplane hangar and Jack fielded questions in the lounge, which served as the interview area. It was a long, narrow room, and some writers sat on cushioned benches built into the wall. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, as did a lot of other writers, because when Jack came in, it was standing room only, pardon the contradiction in terms.

Every Tuesday at Memorial, we get reminded that Jack does, indeed, know jack. Some excerpts:

On the similarity of Tiger Woods winning the Masters at 43 and Jack winning at 46, in 1986: “I suppose you could relate it to ’86. I won’t because I found lightning in a bottle. Tiger, on the other hand, came back from injury and worked hard to get himself back in shape to play. He won the [2018] Tour Championship, but that’s still only 30 players. He’s not beating a huge field. He had to figure out what he had in the 5 inches between his ears. He had to solve that to believe he could do what he did. He played the way a champion should play.”

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Jack Nicklaus (center) and his wife, Barbara, greet Tiger Woods, a 5-time champion of the Memorial Tournament, during a pro-am round before the 2018 event.

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Jack Nicklaus (center) and his wife, Barbara, greet Tiger Woods, a 5-time champion of the Memorial Tournament, during a pro-am round before the 2018 event.

On Tiger resuming the chase of Jack’s 18 professional major titles: “Nobody wants their records broken. I don’t want him to break my records, but I don’t want him [not to break them because he’s] not be able to play. If he breaks it, well done. That’s what sports is all about. More power to him.”

On what it means if Tiger surpasses Sam Snead’s record of 82 career PGA Tour victories: “Oh, I don’t pay any attention to that. That’s not important to me. Might be to him; I don’t know… I never measured my life by Tour wins; I measured it on major wins. All I heard growing up was [Bobby] Jones, Jones, Jones. So major championships were what I always felt were the most important tournaments. Would 82 wins be a major achievement? Absolutely. But you ask Tiger, would he rather win 82 or 18. I think you might get a different answer.”

On the importance of tour golf returning to Michigan in a new event this year at Detroit Golf Club: “Me, from Ohio State, the importance of what goes on in Michigan? I didn’t know anything important went on in Michigan… I’m just kidding.”

On designing a new fifth hole at Pebble Beach: “You can’t really take the coast of the Pacific Ocean and Carmel and design a hole. If you look at number 6, 6 is found. They had this big hill that went down, and you played to the top of the hill. Seven, you couldn’t design that. I found the fifth hole; I didn’t invent it. It was there.”

On why he leaves Augusta after hitting the ceremonial tee ball on Thursday to go fishing in the Bahamas: “Because I have 10,000 phone calls and I’d rather look at a bonefish than answer 10,000 phone calls that nobody cares what I say, anyway.”

On how he watched the Masters finish from his boat in the Bahamas: “Once I sat down and saw Tiger’s shot at 12, I didn’t move again. It was fun watching his mind work. It was fun watching how he thought and how I thought he was thinking and how I would have thought. I shake my head at some of the other shots played. Really? You’re trying to win a major championship and you put yourself in that position?... The Masters rolled back into what we used to have because they [pursuers] all sort of folded back. Tiger still played the last six holes, except for 18, in 3 under par. That’s pretty good golf.”

On whether he missed talking about Tiger chasing his records: “I never mind talking about it. They stopped asking me for a while. Who knows how long his body is going to stay together? If it does, he will probably break my record. I played with Tiger before Augusta, and he played just fantastic. But his neck was bothering him. Really? He shot 64 and everything was perfect, but he said, ‘I have a little problem with it.’ ”

There was more, of course, especially in the post-conference scrum, where Nicklaus holds serve like John McEnroe in his prime. He singled out a local TV media person who’s retiring after 46 years – “How can we let you go? You’ve covered every Memorial Tournament!” Jack exclaimed – and a media-center worker retiring after 40 years.

They’re small touches, but they’re not small to those people.

McGirt remembered playing in an August pro-am after he won the 2016 Memorial that Nicklaus attended. Nicklaus noticed McGirt during a group photo shoot and said loudly, “Hey, everyone. It’s the Memorial Tournament champion!”

McGirt heard the pride in Jack’s voice. “I looked at him and said, ‘You know, that never gets old,’ ” McGirt said. “And it never will.”

Tuesdays with Jack? They never get old.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle